Have a Great New York Week…

3109783051_a8973ac6ce_o-760x576I had a fun drunky, New York moment a few weeks ago. After dinner at Eataly and drinks at Gramercy Park hotel, Eric and I walked our friend Sue, also in town for a visit, to her Union Square hotel. Sue had wanted to extend the party and find a karaoke bar, but Eric, curmudgeonly or pragmatically, refused, “Absolutely not. No karaoke.” Sue and I consoled ourselves by singing I’ve Never Been to Me as we walked around Gramercy Park.

But I interrupted our duet to tell Sue about this walking tour of Gramercy Park that I’d just listened to on the flight from Los Angeles to New York. I tried to tell the story of the lady with connections to Croton Resevoir who attained Egyptian artifacts when they tore down the resevoir. I tried to tell Sue about Edwin Booth and The Players Club. Did I get all the details correct? Unlikely. But still it was a sweet moment and it was enriched by this new discovery I’d made, this wonderful Bowery Boys Podcast.
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Like I said, I only discovered the podcast, by chance, really, a few days before our most recent New York trip. I downloaded a few episodes, and listened to them on the plane and during the trip. But I must say, the real love affair began when I came home. For the last three weeks I have binge listened to over 40 episodes. Driving to and from work or walking the dogs or while I do dishes, The Bowery Boys Podcast has been an almost constant presence.

If you are a history buff or a New Yorkophile, you will love this podcast. You can download episodes for free on Itunes and there are 177 episodes. If you thought it was fun to binge listen to those measly 13 episodes of Serial, you’re in for a treat with The Bowery Boys.
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The hosts, Greg Young and Tom Meyers, are funny, punny, smart, curious Midwesterners who moved to New York around the same time that I did. In what I believe is the Gramercy Park episode, one of them told a story about working at a video store in the ’90s and delivering videos to famous Gramercy Park residents like Julia Roberts. When I lived in New York, any time I was in the area between 14th and 23th, 5th Avenue to Lexington, I always had my eyes peeled for a Julia Roberts sighting. Her sister worked at a restaurant named Zip City (I think) and I would always stare in when I passed hoping to catch a glimpse of either sister.

But I digress. And I admit, it is not unusual for my memory to wander off into my own memories when I listen to The Bowery Boys. Just yesterday, I listened to a recent Little Italy episode, and when they talked about Ferrara Bakery on Mulberry, I couldn’t help but remember my first visit to New York when my BEST FRIEND AB and I ate cannollis from there. And that bakery became a stop I introduced every visitor to when they came to see me. That bakery, even still, is a must every time I’m in town myself. So, basically, I am a part of Little Italy history too.

That’s what I love best about this The Bowery Boys, how when I listen, I feel like New York is still mine, that somehow I am part of her history.

Also, while I was in New York, my friend Eboni and I had brunch at a restaurant, on 7th Avenue, not far from where I used to live. “What restaurant used to be here?” I asked the bartender. He replied that he had no idea, but he asked the manager who was standing right there. “Uh, we’ve been here for a LONG time, since 2002.” And let me say, of course, I get it, 13 years is a long time for a restaurant in the ever changing Manhattan business landscape, but you know this town did exist, for a few years, before the year 2002. It was kind of like this bartender and this manager thought that Manhattan was created the moment their airplane landed or their Greyhound pulled into Port Authority. I probably thought the same thing when I was that age.

Anyway, all of this is a rather lengthy invitation to check out my new favorite thing. Here is the link to the website. http://www.boweryboyshistory.com/ The website is a great companion to the episodes because they often post pictures that complement the content of the podcast. As I said earlier, most episodes are free, but I am sure ordering a t-shirt or donating a little money to their paypal account would be greatly appreciated too.

177 episodes, and counting. If I’ve listened to about 25% of them so far, that means there is a lot of New York to still uncover, still discover. I am driving to San Francisco tomorrow and I know what I’ll be listening to the whole time.

When I listen, I imagine different Bowery Boys fanatics throughout the world, people who live in New York or used to live in New York or maybe folks who always dreamed of it, but have yet to set foot on the island. I’m not the only wistful NewYorkophile, pining from under my palm tree. But when I listen to these guys, I am there. Graciously, Tom and Greg close each episode with “Have a great New York week, whether you live here or not.” And, you know, because of them, I do.

For Whom The Bell Tolls

bell-tower-viewIf the rumors are true, there is a woman dying in my building. She is neither an old lady or a young girl, rather a woman roughly my own age. She has been ill for a while and, from what Eric heard, is being attended to by hospice. For the sake of this story, I will call her Callie.

Callie was here when I moved into this building. She introduced herself in my first few weeks, nearly 17 years ago. She was a constant presence in the building, often doing laundry in one of the building’s two washing machines, often smoking cigarettes on the stairway, her smoke emanating throughout the building. She always had a hello, even if it was followed by a complaint about other tenants. Callie was a modern day Gladys Kravitz and I should know, it takes one to know one.

If Callie and I were friendly, we never became friends. I have thought so much about her in the last few weeks. She is too young to die; she is my age. What haunts me, I guess, is how, we have lived steps away from each other for the last 17 years, saw each other daily or weekly, known certain details about each other’s lives, and yet, there was not much of a connection. If I were to be honest, I would have to admit that I didn’t like Callie very much. I do feel guilty about admitting this, but it is part of the story, it even adds an extra layer of sadness to it all.

I will say this about Callie. She loved my first two dogs Lucy and Mandy. When both of them passed away, within a few months of each other, she offered condolences about each and I didn’t doubt that she meant them. My current two, Millie and Ricky, are not as friendly to people in the building as Lucy and Mandy were and I sometimes wonder if it’s related to the fact that I don’t like most of the people in my building either, now.

One of my first blog posts was about my building, this big, old brick building with hallways like the hotel in The Shining. Before I moved in, I dreamed of living here every time I drove down the street. And I felt so lucky when my friend Ted, who lived in our friend Russell’s old apartment, told me there was a vacancy. And then I got the apartment and then I adopted Lucy and then I moved to a bigger apartment, with french doors in the bed room and views of my historic street. And then I adopted Mandy. And the three of us would go for leisurely, amiable walks, we had leisurely, amiable relationships with all our neighbors. Some of my best friends were people in this building, maybe you are reading this now and you know I am talking about you.

But, for many, Los Angeles is a transitory town. Apartments are by nature transitory too. People move away, people die. In the last few weeks, I made a rough count of the number of people who lived in this building who have passed away before their time, and it’s been jarring, haunting actually.

And speaking of haunting, when I first moved in, I was told by several sources to be on the look out for ghosts. One neighbor once told me that she woke up in the middle of the night to the feeling of someone sitting on her chest, attempting to strangle her and that when she came to, there was no one there. For 17 years, I have been waiting for my ghost moment or moments.

As I said, people move away, people die. Also, though, some people move away, and then they die. My friend Ted, who is the reason I am here, passed away after an illness several years ago. I know it was several years ago, because I remember waking to the phone ringing in my old studio apartment and answering it and one of our mutual friends calling to say that Ted had died. And I remember him telling me that the thing about folks being at peace at the end is really not always the case, that even in his last moments, Ted was clawing and screaming for more life. Which makes me sad, but a little comforted too, that that is how much he still wanted to be here.

It’s silly, but I’ve been tempted in the last few days to run up to Callie’s apartment and knock on the door and ask if I can come in, to spend a bit of time with her. Maybe thank her for always being nice to Lucy and Mandy and patient with Ricky and Millie, to acknowledge what we shared. We lived, not identical, but parallel lives, for 17 years. Of course, I will not and should not do that. I would only be an imposition, an annoyance.

I wish I weren’t so narcissistic. You don’t have to be a therapist to know that part of the reason Callie’s illness has burrowed into me is that I am eternally cognizant of my own mortality. I know that Callie had more things she wanted to see, do, accomplish, as do I. This town is full of people who transition from renting apartments to owning homes. Did Callie dream of a house, with or without picket fence? Is there something wrong with me, is it my failure, if I live in an apartment for the rest of my life?

I do wish Callie peace in her transition from this world to whatever is on the other side. I know she loved her family, she loved her friends and I know that she was loved in return. I hope that love is a comfort to her and to them.

As for myself, I don’t know why I say that I’ve never experienced ghosts in this building because that couldn’t be further from the truth. The dead are still with me, the friends I made here who’ve only moved away to just below Pico or a house in Echo Park, are still with me too. Lucy, Mandy, Ted, I think of you three every day. Every day. You are all my ghosts, you all haunt me. But I want you to know that while there is sadness in your absences, there is a grace, a solace in knowing that how lucky we were to, for a time, at least, roam these halls together.

A Whole New World

IMG_3731Eric and I returned from New York a couple of days ago. It was a cold, action-packed 6 days and as much as I enjoyed the adventure, I’m glad to be home. I might fantasize about living in New York again, I probably will for the rest of my life, but, first, I really enjoyed swimming in the 70 degree California sunshine the day after our return and second, our dogs would hate living in cold weather and probably try to pick fights with people and other dogs on their daily walks. Eric and I always marvel that we never see or hear barking dogs when we are in Manhattan. What’s the deal? Is it the water?

Anyway, Tuesday night, our last night, Eric and I tried to stuff as much into an evening as humanly possible. We had burgers at the Shake Shack in Grand Central, then drinks and clam chowder at the Oyster Bar. We walked up Lexington to 58th, popping into the various hotels along the avenue. I wanted to check out the East Side Marriott, formerly the Shelton Hotel, that was once the tallest hotel in the world as well as Georgia O’Keefe’s home from 1925 to 1936. The day before, we saw the painting East River from the Shelton Hotel at the Met and I read about the Shelton and wondered how I’d never heard about the hotel or O’Keefe’s inspired, lengthy stay there. Either way, the hotel is still glamorous and stately, even if a bit Marriott-ized. From there we walked into Bergdorf Goodman’s men’s shop where I could get one last spritz of my favorite perfume, Maison Francis Kurkdijan’s BG exclusive, 754. On every trip, I try to visit every day to spray a little. On Saturday, an employee, perhaps resentful that I wouldn’t try the fragrance she was trying to hawk, sneered at me, “That is a ladies’ fragrance.” “Oh, what’s going to happen to me?” “Nothing, I just wanted you to be aware of it.”

From Bergdorf, we walked along Central Park South to Robert in Columbus Circle. We had drinks in a lounge area that overlooked Central Park and the Upper West Side, specifically Broadway. We took pictures and Instagrammed them, talked about some of the highlights of our trip, the traditions like Barney Greengrass and Central Park and the Met and Mary Ann’s in Chelsea. We talked about the new experiences, discovering a great, new to us, hotel, The Roosevelt and seeing John Cameron Mitchell in Hedwig and the Angry Inch, from the second row, no less. We talked about the cheeseburgers at J.G. Melon. We talked about how much we enjoyed the snow. We talked about how much we missed the dogs, or as we call them, the babies.

After Robert, we took the subway down to Grove Street, to Marie’s Crisis, the iconic Greenwich Village piano bar. Several years ago, I did a show where I talked about visiting Marie’s Crisis with my best friend Michele and her new husband Stan. It was a fun, special night and because it’s on YouTube, the evening has had an enduring glow for Michele and me.

When Eric and I walked into Marie’s Crisis on Tuesday night, it was to the accompaniment of 15-20 Broadway loving souls singing Everything’s Coming Up Roses, an apt welcome. We ordered a couple of drinks and found a wobbly table to sit at and enjoyed taking it all in. There was a shift change and the early evening piano player was replaced by a pretty, zaftig woman named Franca who, we came to find out, was enjoying a bit of internet celebrity because a few nights earlier Jimmy Fallon made a drunken, passionate, raucous visit and several people had posted videos from the evening.

There were men and women, gays and straights, young and old. There were boys in their early 20s belting out show tunes and I couldn’t help but think of my own 20 something self. I never went to Marie’s Crisis. I didn’t have the confidence to stand at a piano and croon Corner of the Sky, but I wanted to. Instead, I would frequent Uncle Charlie’s or Splash and stand in a corner and suck in my stomach and wait for someone to come up to me and introduce himself.

Of course, I thought about those nights as I sat there with Eric. It could have been the bourbon, it could have been something else, but I felt an ache for those days of my youth. That ache comes and goes. It’s probably, at this point, directly proportionate to my weight. When I visit New York, and walk down 8th Avenue in Chelsea or 7th Avenue in the Village, I just don’t feel as visible as I once did.

The song after Corner of the Sky was from Aladdin, A Whole New World. I know I don’t write about my sex life here, but I think that even if you are super conservative, you have deduced, at this point, that I am no longer a virgin. Still, if you are related to me, in any way, please skip the next two paragraphs. Don’t get tempted to disregard my plea, just scroll down. I don’t want to think about you having read this while we are feasting on Italian sausage and spaghetti at the next family reunion.

The first guy I ever had sex with was a guy I met at the 23rd Street YMCA. We met and he asked me back to his place and we fooled around and it was very vanilla and after, the two of us lay on his bed listening to music. Aladdin had just come out and the song was getting a lot of radio play. Before we went to his apartment, I had told my new friend, I’ll call him Milton, because that was his name, that I was very new to all of this. As Peabo purred, “I can show you the world, shining, shimmering splendid…”, Milton turned to me and said, “This certainly seems like the perfect song for this moment.” And it did.

My body might have been at 2015 Marie’s Crisis, but my heart was in that one bedroom apartment with exposed brick on one wall on 18th street between 7th and 8th, circa 1993. I knew before we tumbled into bed together, on another snowy New York day, that Milton was not going to be the person I would grow old with, but what he was, still is, actually, was my first. I wish he’d been cuter, I wish I’d been more attracted to him. Because of my upbringing, I suppose there is still, over 20 years later, a part of me that wishes that my first had been my only. But alas, that is not the way the years played out. And that’s okay, probably for the best, really.

After the A Whole New World, Franca played and everyone sang I Dreamed a Dream and I remembered another boyfriend from those early years, an Israeli atchitecture student who was only in New York for one summer. Then, You Could Drive a Person Crazy, then another song from Pippin, Morning Glow. And then, Eric and I decided to call it a night.

Eric and I splurged on a cab to our hotel and I asked the driver to let us off at 6th avenue and 41st, so we could walk around Bryant Park and the New York Public Library. We went to Duane Reade to buy some water and bedtime snacks. And as we walked back to our hotel, bundled up in scarves and hats and gloves, carrying our booty with us, one of us said, “The babies.” And the other said, “I know, I can’t wait to see them.” And we walked on and on, sideways and under, on a magic carpet ride.

The Facts of Life

3039_1084349233848_8185094_nAs a person who receives some satisfaction from documenting his experiences and thoughts in words and sharing those words with others, I sometimes I ask myself, what is it about my writing, my point of view, that is my essence. Who am I at my core? Obviously, I am an Angeleno, a reader, an art lover, a Kansan, a former New Yorker, a swimmer. But what makes me me? What are the hallmarks of my writing?

I was talking to someone last night and we were discussing our separate junior high and high school experiences. And I said that for me, junior high and high school are never very far away from me. For me, and perhaps it’s because those years were not what I wanted them to be, I can be in the middle of the most random moments, like taking a table’s order, or walking down Larchmont, or drinking my morning coffee, or driving along Mulholland (Full confession, I do not drive along Mulholland nearly as often as I should.) and suddenly, often inexplicably, I am in Ms. Willis’ Algebra II class, or receiving my 2nd place medal at a Chanute Forensics competition, or getting in trouble for talking too much in the Living Christmas Tree at my Bible college, or standing in the lunch line at IJHS.

And I don’t think I am the only one who finds his memories almost oppressively accessible. I think many people remember many things from 25 and 30 and 35 years ago, but often, people don’t like to wade into that muck. Because, really, it’s muck and often muck can weigh you down. The past is the past.

But you know, just to play Devil’s advocate, you CAN learn from your past. You can ponder it and say, I don’t want to ever do or feel THAT again. Or you can say, there was a purity or joy that I want to bring back. For instance, I don’t remember a happier childhood time than the summer or weekend days when I would visit my friend Chris and we would play all afternoon with his sister’s Barbies. I marvel at how much of my childhood was spent dreaming of having my own Barbie doll. Every September, when the Sears, JCPenney and Montgomery Ward Christmas catalogs came, I would memorize, circle, cast a spell on every single item in the Barbie and fashion doll pages of each book. It’s crazy, I know. So much yearning for something that the culture I lived in told me was bad.

On New Year’s Day, as I was swimming, I thought about my friend Alan, with whom I spent most of New Year’s Eve. I’ve talked about him here before from time to time. We grew up together in the same small town, but, probably because even then we could both smell the gay on each other, it wasn’t until our adulthood that we became friends. And now, he knows this too, he is one of my best friends. That night, as a group of us sat at our friend Traci’s dining room table, discussing Serial, (Am I the only one who has little doubt that Adnan did it?) we also talked about Independence, gossiped a bit, showed our LA friends the mugshot of a childhood classmate that had (Drew Droege in Chloe voice) recently come to our attention. While we laughed over Malbec and Mu-Shu Pork, a Happy New Year text came in from our childhood friend Curt. Curt and his husband live in Ecuador, but were in Independence the same weekend I was there in December and we got to connect. I told Curt that I was with Alan and he wished Alan a Happy New Year too.

While I was in Kansas, I spent a good deal of time, documenting the trip with Alan and another friend Joel. Joel and I knew each other growing up, but our friendship was cemented when we took Mrs. Spencer’s American Literature course through the junior college one summer. It’s a bit of a magic trick to make something written centuries ago feel personal and contemporary, but that’s what she did in that class. There were only a handful of us, but whenever I see someone from that class, we always nod our heads and say, “THAT was the BEST class.” And then the other says, “YES, it was!”

So, yes, that first weekend in December, Alan and Joel and I spent a great deal of time texting each other about the weekend’s sightings, happenings, uncoverings, nuances.

I ached to have a large circle of friends when I was growing up. I mean, I had some friends, but I remember a lot of Friday and Saturday nights hanging out with the Ewings, the Channings, the Stubings and Mr. Roarke when what I really wanted was to go to the movies with friends my own age. I don’t doubt that I was an oddball. I mean, I don’t think anyone else was tape recording episodes of The Facts of Life and listening to them over and over again every night as a lullaby before bed.

The thing is, what I really wanted to say, when I started this Miss Havisham of a blog post, is that I’m grateful for my fellow gays from Independence. Not long ago, one of us, probably Alan, uncovered on FB someone else from our little town, who, it appears is living a gay life in a large city, far from Kansas like the rest of us. In trying to glean as much info as possible from his profile, I got a sense, true or not, that he wanted and succeeded at putting a lot of distance between himself and his hometown. And I certainly don’t judge that decision, there is a part of me that thinks that way too. But, I also felt a little sad. Sad that he doesn’t seem to have an Alan or a Joel or a Curt or a Chris to say, “Yeah, I remember. Growing up in Independence sometimes SUCKED, but look at us now. Look at how fabulous we’ve become.”

Guest Blogger, Gretchen Meinhardt

10268534_10152910983861554_5398660021533019161_nI don’t wade into political topics all that often. I’ll just say it’s not my particular area of expertise and leave it at that. But I do want to share the story of a family. I’ve known Gretchen Meinhardt since we were in college. A few months ago, I shared a piece she wrote for CNN. Today, I am sharing a copy of the letters she has sent to her legislators chronicling her experience with the Affordable Care Act for her family. Primarily, I share this so that a solution might be found where all children, and adults for that matter, receive the best healthcare possible, regardless of where they fall on an income scale. I don’t really know who might read this, but maybe Gretchen might also connect with other parents who are in a similar situation. I have included her email, for this purpose. If you have a similar story, please feel free to share it.

Guest Blogger: Gretchen Meinhardt

Perhaps the Affordable Care Act has helped some people, but it has been devastating for families like mine who struggle to care for a child with disabilities. When we adopted our newborn son Raef in 2001, we had no idea what we were in for, not only as new parents, but also as caregivers for a baby with significant, lifelong healthcare needs. Our joy as new parents soon turned to fear as he began having seizures – 200 to 300 a day – that were impossible to control. At only 8 months old, he had radical brain surgery (a right hemispherectomy), which was scary, but such a blessing because he has been seizure-free for 13 years now. The seizures and surgery left him partially blind and with limited use of the left side of his body (cerebral palsy), but he is an active eighth grader, with a delightful sense of humor and zest for life. The seizures and subsequent disabilities are not Raef’s only challenge, however. He also has Neurofibromatosis Type 1 (NF1), a genetic condition which causes tumors to grow on the nerves. At just 2 years old, he endured 14 months of chemotherapy to treat a tumor on his optic nerve. That tumor has remained stable, but Raef faces ongoing NF-related challenges, including learning disabilities, ADHD, sleep issues, and fine motor difficulties. In spite of all of these challenges, we wouldn’t trade Raef – or his younger sister Gwyn, his biological sibling whom we also adopted – for the world. We love them with all our hearts and delight in being their parents. The thing that breaks my heart and keeps me awake at night is that now, thanks to the Affordable Care Act, we may not be able to afford the medical care our son needs. For many years before the ACA, we were blessed to have excellent health insurance through my husband’s work as a safety manager with a large international company. However, when the country was preparing for the implementation of the ACA, that company chose to reorganize in order to afford the increased health care costs and requirements resulting from the ACA. My husband was among the “middle management” that was laid off to pay for these increased costs. And there went our health insurance, right along with his job, because we could not even afford the COBRA premiums. Since he was laid off more than a year ago, he has been actively searching and interviewing for jobs. But like many in his position, he has struggled. Although he is working temporary contract jobs in safety management, he has been unable to find a full-time position, with benefits, in his field. In addition, I work as an adjunct college instructor, and while it is relatively easy to find part-time positions, it is becoming increasingly difficult to find full-time college teaching positions that offer benefits. So far we have managed to piece together health coverage for our family, but only because my husband is a veteran and can get VA healthcare, and because we reluctantly put our children on state health insurance (Medicaid) until we could find employment with benefits. However, it was next to impossible to get state coverage for the children, even though we qualified based on income after my husband lost his job. Now we live under the constant threat that we will lose the children’s Medicaid coverage before we are able to find permanent, affordable health coverage. During Medicaid’s latest notice they would be dropping coverage (which we are appealing), I once again priced health coverage through the ACA marketplace. If we go through the marketplace for health insurance, the medical costs in 2015 for my children and me will be between $16,000 and $30,000. This includes premiums, prescriptions, and out-of-pocket medical costs. (We always meet the out-of-pocket maximum with our son by about Valentine’s Day.) It’s hardly “affordable,” but with a child like Raef, health coverage is hardly optional. As the New Year and a new session of Congress approach, I ask that you take a serious look at the ACA and consider whether it is truly ensuring “affordable” health care for Americans. If you would like to know more about my family’s experience, please feel free to contact me. I am happy to help in any way, even if it takes meeting with legislators or testifying before Congress. Thank you for your careful consideration of this important issue.

Best regards,
Gretchen Meinhardt
Kansas City, Missouri
cliffmein@hotmail.com

What My Dog Taught Me

One can learn a lot from one’s pets, and not always in that cute Marley and Me way either. Oh how I wish this was a story about how smart and evolved my dogs are, but sadly, the dogs in my household have as many Achilles’ heels as the humans with whom they share their lives.

A few weeks ago, we gave Millie a plastic toy that was shaped like a Christmas present. Millie has not generally been a toy lover, but for some reason she fixated on this particular piece. And she looked super cute in all the pictures we took of her, holding the present in her mouth. It was a little too big for her and watching her try to carry it around the apartment made us laugh, not AT her of course, WITH her.

But this week, I had a realization about Millie and this brightly colored cadeau. It brings her no joy. She obsesses over it, stands guard, licks it occasionally, and worse, growls whenever Ricky or Eric or I get too close to it. Not once has Millie wagged her tail over her gift, the way she always does when it’s supper time or she’s going for a walk. I wake up in the middle of night, wonder where Millie is and I’ll look under the bed. There she’ll be, alert when she should be resting, her big eyes scowling at me, “Don’t take my present! It’s mine!”

Not to beat anyone over the head with the symbolism, but it was a big reminder to me to enjoy the gifts, tangible and otherwise, that I have been given. I think we all have a tendency to take things for granted or not appreciate, but the hope is that our gifts bring us joy, that wagging our tail kind of happiness.

I’m not particularly known for my optimism or even my gratitude. But one gift I receive every year is a chance to push the reset button. A chance to say, this is a new year, today I start becoming the person I’ve always wanted to be.

As for poor Millie, I don’t think she can change who she is. She’s just a dog, an old one at that. So, it’s been discussed and today, the gift goes into a drawer. No doubt, she will soon forget about it and it won’t be a source of torment any longer. Don’t feel too bad for her, she’ll still have the the things that do bring her joy: wrestling with her brother, cuddles with her Dads, walks in the sunshine, treats.

Happy New Year to all! Every day, but especially today, the possibilities are endless. May 2015 be filled with all the things that make your tail wag.

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Suzanne’s Hands

Suzanne-SomersI was awake at 5 a.m. with a tickle in my throat. I couldn’t fall back to sleep so I got up, took some cough medicine and read a bit on the couch. After awhile, I tired of reading but lay on the couch wishing I could turn my brain off a little. I looked at my hands, really studied them. Whenever I look at my hands, I always think of Suzanne Somers.

I like my hands, I used to really like them but in the last five years or so, they’ve started to wrinkle. Once somebody told me that I had “surfer boy” hands and though I didn’t know exactly what that entailed, it thrilled me to hear it. Also, when I look at my hands, I feel some pride that I no longer bite my nails. Give or take a few years, it was a 40 year habit. Like an alcoholic, I will always be nail biter in my core, but for the last few years, I have been a non-practicing one. I sometimes think that the one good thing to come out of a certain acting class is that I would stare at my hands during my teacher’s impassioned diatribes and look at my nails and think, I want to make a change. So, when I tell myself I can’t change something, I look at my nails and remember that yes, sometimes I can change.

But enough of my nails, let’s talk about my hands. Though not exactly leathery, I do feel like they are halfway between dewy and beef jerky. It’s fine, there are worse things to have to deal with. But like I said, I do think of Suzanne every time I look at these mitts.

It was 1995, I was in that play Party that I’ve written about a few times before on this blog. Around Christmas, folks could bring a children’s toy to the box office to get a certain discount on their ticket. We collected the toys and delivered them to one of the charities that distributed to needy children during the holidays. A great idea, and to promote it, celebrities would come to the show and take their picture with the cast and the photo would run in magazines, mostly the gay press. A win win, as the saying goes. We also collected money at other times for Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS. Several interesting personalities came to the show and had their pictures taken with us, Dave Kopay, Greg Louganis, Yvonne Craig (Batgirl). My favorite was Judith Light who at that point I really only knew from Who’s the Boss. So very complimentary and gracious and beautiful. She talked to us about her friend Paul Monette who had passed away only a few months earlier. On the surface, Party was a trifle, a confection, but it made people laugh at a time when the GLBT community and those who loved them really needed to laugh. Twenty years later, I am still grateful for the experience Party gave me and I am proud to have been a part of something that brought a lot of people joy and comfort.

Don’t worry, I am getting to Suzanne.

Now sometimes, the stars came to us, sometimes we came to the stars. We went to the set of General Hospital to take a picture with some cast members, also we met Lee Meriwether, randomly, at an office building on La Brea. She was dressed for a formal affair that she was headed off to, but could not have been lovelier to us. She was wearing what was quite obviously a wig. I remember worrying that maybe her health was compromised, though in every way but the wig, she was the picture of vigor. I really, really liked her so I feel a bit guilty even mentioning the wig, but it made me worry for her a little, thought it made her appear a bit vulnerable.

The photo op we had with Suzanne Somers was going to be a very big deal our publicist told us. We were to meet her on the set of her series, Step by Step, and she would take pictures with us and ALSO, Entertainment Tonight was going to be there to document it. I had never been on Entertainment Tonight, obviously. The day of the op came. We all convened on the set. We waited in the mostly empty studio audience while members of the cast ran through certain scenes. Our picture was supposed to be at 11:00 but Suzanne was running behind. An hour passed, another hour passed. It was kind of annoying to wait around, but also, exciting to be on an actual tv set. Obviously, it was something I dreamed about all my life, and I was there, just not there in the exact way that I’d imagined.

Finally, after 2 hours, Suzanne Somers appeared. Full make up, and then some. Full hair, and then some. I must be honest, she was beautiful. The biggest smile, the set’s lights added an extra twinkle to her azure eyes. Twenty years had passed since she had been Chrissy Snow, but I got it. She was a star, always would be. Someone positioned the cast around Suzanne. Our stage manager arranged the toys for the tots, that he’d lugged in from his car, prominently around us. If I recall, a few of us held them in our hands. As the flashes went off, I looked down at Suzanne, so beautiful and for the first time, caught sight of her hands. Everything about her had been spackled and pulled into a semblance of youth, but her hands still told the truth. Old lady hands, I thought at the time, though a quick Wikipedia search tells me she would have been 49 on that day. So, give or take a few years, my age now. Entertainment Tonight filmed the entire thing, eventually pulling Suzanne aside for an interview with us talking to each other in the background. We asked when the segment would air, but were told they “weren’t sure.”

On our way out the door, someone in Suzanne’s camp handed each of us our own Thighmasters as a gesture for making the trip. We giggled at the time, but I kept mine for a good 15 years, stored haphazardly in my closet. It’s the only gift Suzanne every gave me, I thought, I can’t throw it away.

But of course, it’s not the only gift Ms. Somers ever gave me. She gave me a great story, a fun memory and a lesson. It might seem bittersweet, how even when we try to hold onto youth, our hands will still give us away. And that’s one way of looking at it. But you know, as I said, I’m almost Suzanne’s then age now and I have a little more respect and admiration. Those hands reminded me of what she had weathered, and I’m not just talking about She’s the Sheriff. Suzanne Somers is many things, not the least of which is a survivor. And just as my nails remind me of what I can change, my hands will always remind me of what I can endure.